Italy's Matteo Salvini shuts port to 629 rescued migrants

Migrants on board the NGO search and rescue vessel Aquarius

The Aquarius, a humanitarian ship run by the NGO SOS Mediterranean and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said it saved 946 people, including 200 unaccompanied minors rescued after being found drifting on nine wooden and rubber boats.

On Monday afternoon, Spain offered to allow the migrant-rescue ship to dock at the port of Valencia "to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe, " though it remained unclear whether or not the ship was able to make the journey to Valencia.

Rescue workers onboard the MV Aquarius said it will take four days to reach the port of Valencia and that the boat should be allowed access to the nearest port immediately, which now means in Italian or Maltese territory.

The defiant comments from Sophie Beau, head of the charity SOS Mediterranee, suggest the row over the stranded ship could repeat itself - not least as migrant attempts to cross the Mediterranean increase in the warm summer months.

"We call on all involved to contribute to a swift resolution so that the people on board the Aquarius vessel may be safely disembarked as soon as possible".

The episode, coming a week after the installation of Italy's new populist government, has heightened tensions within the European Union over migration.

A US Navy ship rescued 40 migrants off the coast of Libya Tuesday, according to US military officials.

However, charities questioned why the coast guard boat was being allowed to dock in Italy, while migrants on the Aquarius, who had been at sea for longer, were not.

The 629 people now on board Aquarius were rescued during night of Saturday to Sunday, when Aquarius carried out six rescue and transfer operations in the space of nine hours - all under instruction from the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (IMRCC). "NGOs do nothing differently to the coast guard", the charity Sea Watch wrote on Twitter.

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The dispute was among the first consequences of political upheaval in Italy, where anti-migrant leaders recently rose to power with a pledge to crack down on new arrivals from the Middle East and Africa.

Earlier in the day, the Maltese government also refused to accept migrants from the Acquarius.

Eric Ciotti, a prominent hard-right MP from the opposition Republicans party, also called on the government to take a tough line on the Aquarius.

Italy's new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said on Sunday that from now on, "Italy, too, begins to say NO to the trafficking of human beings".

The ship was carrying 629 migrants rescued within the Libyan search and rescue region, making Lampedusa its nearest safe port.

Macron told a Cabinet meeting that under maritime law, "in cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond", spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said.

SOS Mediteranee has always dropped its passengers off on Italian shores, adding to an influx of 700,000 migrants from Africa the country has had to deal with since 2013.

In a statement issued Monday, the International Chamber of Shipping warned that refusing port access to vessels like the Aquarius could have "serious implications for the safety and welfare of these distressed people, including children and pregnant women".

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